Researchers figure out how flies stick that perfect upside down landing

Nobody pays much attention to flies, except perhaps when swatting them.

But a team of international researchers have watched them so closely that they now understand how flies manage to pull of “spectacular” upside down landings on ceilings.

“These inverted landing maneuvers are among the most remarkable aerobatic feats, yet the full range of these behaviors and their underlying sensorimotor processes remain largely unknown,” according to a new report in the journal Science Advances.

That is until now.

Using high-speed videography, scientists could see the insects execute four perfectly timed maneuvers to land upside down.

First, they increase their speed, then cartwheel their bodies, followed by a sweep of their legs to land through a leg-assisted body swing to stick perfectly upside down to the ceiling.

And, these mini-pilots do it all based on a series of “complex visual and sensory cues” as they approach a landing spot.

The researchers couldn’t believe their eyes.

“Through this work, we sought to understand how a fly executes the maneuvers of landing upside down in the blink of an eye,” Bo Cheng, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State and lead author of the paper said in a statement.

This could help humans design better drones and robots.

“Ultimately, we want to replicate that in engineering, but we have to understand it first,” Cheng said.

Researchers from the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, and Colorado State also worked on the study with the help of a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Figuring out how a fly lands could help engineers develop new drones and robots. Photo: Penn State

Current robot technology doesn’t have the speed or efficiency to do what the common house fly can pull off.

“We look at nature for inspiration,” Jean-Michel Mongeau, an assistant professor of mechanical engineerin at Penn State explained in a statement. “This helps drive the fundamental science of engineering, to understand how flies are able to solve these problems so we can apply them to future technologies.”

Mongeau called what house flies can do “quite spectacular.”

“Within the blink of an eye, these flies can totally invert their body and land, which is quite spectacular,” study co-author Jean-Michel Mongeau said. Photo: Penn State

The findings, he added, could also support work in neuroscience.

“How is a fly’s nervous system able to do this so quickly?” Mongeau said. “This work reiterates how fast these maneuvers are executed within an extremely small nervous system. This data can lead to new hypotheses for understanding how brains function.”

Photos Penn State

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